Friday, July 18, 2014

Wait, What?--Short Attention Span Theater

I’ve been noticing something in class the last few years and it disturbs me.

When I started teaching years ago, I was told by my mentor teacher to change activities every twenty minutes within a lesson.  So, about halfway through the class hour, I would move from discussion to worksheet, from lecture to group work.  Occasionally, if the lesson allowed, I’d change three times an hour, moving from a quick explanation to group work to presentations.  When I did ignore my mentor’s advice and lectured the entire hour, or assigned individual work for the duration, the students became antsy around—you guessed it—the twenty minute mark.

Now what I have noticed is that I must change activities three to four times an hour.  It is short attention span theater.  Often, things move so fast that I feel like we’ve all be inhaling helium or been caught up in a Charlie Chaplin flick.  No more than five complete sentences and we’re off to the races—seat work, group work, group presentation, discussion, wrap up.  Certainly makes the day go faster, but I’m not sure we’re learning more.

The bottom line, there is increasing need for captivating stories or visuals in the classroom as well as shifting activities to keep students motivated and involved in the lesson.  And it takes a perceptive instructor to orchestrate the learning, ready on a moment’s notice to shift the lesson to keep the students focused and on task.

What does this mean for education and teachers in the future?  According to the Chicago Tribune News, “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured more than $4 billion into efforts to transform public education in the U.S., is pushing to develop an ‘engagement pedometer.’  Biometric devices wrapped around the wrists of students would identify which classroom moments excite and interest them—and which fall flat.  The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several university researchers to begin testing the devices in middle-school classrooms this fall.”  Welcome to performance art as education, with teachers measured the way popular television is rated—by how many viewers they have and how often those viewers want to change the channel in the middle of a lesson.

There is a loss of deep thinking and analysis in nearly every area of our lives and I’ve even noticed attention deficits in myself.  At home, I absolutely cannot read with the television on in the same room.  Instant headache.  I am drawn to the stories on the TV and the dialogue and words on the page begin to intermingle to the point where my mind is overflowing with fragments and nonsensical narratives like some kind of bizarre soup concocted by a schizophrenic cook.  I require sustained focus in a quiet room or face a debilitating headache that will last for hours after the television is turned off or the book is put away.  I simply cannot multi-task, and in our society, those who cannot multi-task are made to feel inept and slow.

This is the point in the essay when I should have some answers.  How can we counteract this problem?  I don’t know.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  But I am switching activities in my lessons more frequently.  I actually try to talk at a lesser length and utilize video clips and photography to enrich the lesson, although I worry that using pictures instead of words to transmit complex ideas might be sending the wrong message and offer a much too shallow rendering of those difficult ideas.  When I do need to speak to my students for a longer length of time, I make sure to prepare what I will say and economize with my words.  If I can, I utilize story to convey the lesson, because I think storytelling is something with which I can hold their attention.  At least I think I hold their attention based on careful observation, which is a challenge given that I am both conveying the lesson and trying to gauge their reaction and focus.  Maybe that pedometer would be helpful.

There are many tools that can help keep students focused, so what every teacher must do is keep up with technology.  Technology is key.  Our students use a variety of methods to communicate and convey information, and we need to be right there with them if we are to keep their attention.

As for me personally, I turn off the television when I am reading, or if my wife is watching and I want to read, I go to another room.  When I am writing or looking at student essays, I limit anything that I know will distract me.  Even song lyrics can pull my attention away, so instrumental music is about the only thing I’ll play when working.

I have also made it a point to find quiet time every day.  I devote at least a half hour to silent contemplation—no music, no noise, no reading.  I sit, preferably in a semi-dark room, drink a cup of coffee, and just think.  I find I emerge on the other side of my brief respite more focused and mentally clear.  It is my version of the Buddhist meditation.  It is a matter of survival, and a way to stay focused in a cacophonous world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writing In The Sciences

This summer for the third year in a row I’m teaching a writing workshop for college students called Writing In The Sciences.  My students are all freshmen biological sciences majors who have recently graduated from high school or are transferring to a four-year institution from a junior college.  The program is part of a STEM grant, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In previous years, I focused on writing practice.  Since the students come from a variety of educational programs from Advanced Placement and honors to mainstream college preparatory courses, from public high schools to charters, magnets, and private institutions, I wanted just to get them writing every day with drafts submitted at the end of the week for my review.  That way I could respond individually to each student’s writing, and formulate lessons to address specific areas needing attention involving the whole class.  This worked well for two years, but at the conclusion of last summer’s program, I found myself wanting to do more to prepare them for the specific challenges they will face in their coursework.  Having worked with students for several years now as a writing tutor, I know what they will be asked to do as science writers and researchers, so I wanted to structure the summer workshop to meet those expectations more fully.  I had to avoid turning a challenging, fun workshop into an academic exercise devoid of any creativity or spontaneity.  In previous years, I also managed to expose students to good science writing and helped them brush up on their study skills.  I did not want to lose those components when I revised the workshop curriculum.

This year, I decided to specifically focus on research writing because that corresponds to the demands of the program they are entering.  To not address this would mean they could enter the fall semester unprepared.  However, I wanted them to keep a sense of awe and wonder about the world they are studying.  The work must not be a chore or an exercise, but be fun and challenging.  To do that meant that the students must have some control over their own topic selection.

On the first day, I issued a syllabus detailing the plan.  The students would be allowed to determine their own research focus.  I clearly outlined the brainstorming process and used as a guide, Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (University of Chicago Press, Eighth Edition, 2013).  The book focuses on a syllogistic structure for determining the topic of the paper.  The students were asked to fill in the blanks on the following sentences:  “I am working on ________________ (the topic), because I want to find out ________________ (the answer to the research question), so that I can help others understand _______________(the ultimate goal).  The book presents these questions in a few different ways, so there is flexibility.  The topics fall into the categories of concept questions and practical questions, with concepts applying more to humanities and practical questions relating to the sciences.  I asked the students to think about how the topic fit into a larger context on a historical, social, cultural, geographical, functional, or economical level.  As they bounced their ideas off me, I would point them in the direction of recent articles or current events I knew applied to their topics.

Then, we broke down the format of their paper with a rough outline—thesis, overview of the problem, justification for the research, analysis of three source articles from peer-reviewed journals, their thoughts and inferences after finishing the research, and a conclusion.  I stressed that the outline was a fluid structure, and as they researched they should be prepared to restructure the paper, rework the thesis, narrow or expand the topic, etc.

We spent the next hours in the library getting a crash course in using databases and doing digital research.  The librarians helped me with this part of the workshop, and the students quickly acclimated to using the library portal and finding their materials.  At the end of the first week, they submitted a paragraph discussing the topic and thesis of their paper.

At the start of week two, I returned their paragraphs with suggestions about how to maximize or narrow down their topics.  I did not worry too much about writing problems yet as this was a holistic reading.  I did introduce some basic grammar concepts based on errors I often see in student papers.  I had the students use several websites that offer exercises and games illustrating language concepts.  It is always amazing how many students have graduated from high school having had literally no grammar instruction, not in high school or elementary school.

In the next few days, I will be teaching them how to annotate their journal articles and have them brush up on their critical reading skills.  I find that many students lack strong critical reading skills, and this cripples their writing.

So far, the students seem absorbed in their research, and I have already seen some interesting topics.  After turning in a bibliography this week, we will start drafting the paper and after a final draft is finished, the students will present their research to the workshop.  They do many of these presentations during their regular semester courses, so it is important that the process culminates in both a finished paper and a presentation so they get the full flavor of what will be required of them starting in the fall.  I am anxious to see how things develop as the workshop progresses.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer Reading--Esperanza Rising

Fifth or sixth grade teachers looking for a good book for students in their classes to read over the summer should pick up a copy of Esperanza Rising (Scholastic, 2002) by Pam Munoz Ryan.  The book follows the adventures of the main character, a twelve year old Mexican girl who must flee to the United States after her wealthy ranchero father is murdered by vaqueros while out mending fences on his property.  It is a tragedy with far-ranging consequences.  It is also a powerful story that is perfect for students in intermediate grades because the author focuses on character development and poetic language.  Ryan creates a realistic world and does not shy away from the dangers and difficulties faced by migrant workers in the central valley of California.

Esperanza’s father is a wise and important presence in her life who first teaches her to love the land.  He tells her the earth breathes and is alive, like a person.  On a grassy hill, they lay down on their stomachs to feel the earth’s heartbeat.  By being still and quiet, Esperanza senses the living land.  When she displays the impatient attitude of a child who desperately wants to grow up, her father tells her, “Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand.  You must be patient, Esperanza.”  Additional lessons come from the roses her father has so carefully cultivated, one he names for her and the other for a son of his ranchero worker.  The son, Miguel, and Esperanza, although in separate classes within Mexican society, are linked together in the plot and face the dangers and uncertainties in the new world of America.  Before the tragedy of her father’s death, Esperanza picks a rose and pricks her finger on a sharp thorn, a harbinger of the bad luck to come.  Throughout the story, Ryan laces in the folklore and traditions of Mexican culture, to which many students will be able to relate and appreciate.

The story is set in the 1920s parallel to the time and place of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The journey to the U.S. for Esperanza and her family is fraught with danger, and not much different from the perilous journey of Latino immigrants today.  The story is interesting for the point of view it presents alongside that of the Okies in Steinbeck’s work.  Those white migrants from the Dust Bowl are peripheral to this story, as are the Filipino and Japanese workers who occupy similar camps in the valley as the one where Esperanza and her family stay.  All of the migrant farm workers faced incredible hardships and challenges, and Esperanza’s story presents yet another side to that period in California history.  Throughout the novel, the sense of political upheaval is present.  In Mexico, Esperanza’s mother tells her, “Change has not come fast enough, Esperanza.  The wealthy still own most of the land while some of the poor have not even a garden plot.”  Later in California, some workers want to strike for higher wages while others, like Esperanza and her family, value their jobs and do not wish to make waves.  This conflict results in violent and bloody consequences for the workers.

The ending of the book is a little too easy and neat.  There is definitely room for more story or a sequel, but the plot as a whole is satisfying and enlightening.  Ryan manages to maintain the poetry of the Spanish language, which she translates whenever she uses a phrase.  It flows naturally without seeming to be too pedantic.

Teachers are always on the hunt for works that offer a good story and well-developed characters that will interest young readers while also challenging them to improve their reading skills.  Since they are reading these books on their own over the summer break, they require works that do not need a teacher’s guidance as the students read.  Good literature demands readers, and Esperanza Rising will certainly connect with intermediate grade level students.  Pam Munoz Ryan does an excellent job of pulling together an interesting and wise story.  It is perfect in scope and content for intermediate grades, and would offer many opportunities for cultural insight and exploration of folklore and traditions.  It is a part of “Hispanic literature,” but is readily accessible for a multicultural audience.  It would make a good addition to any summer reading list.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The American Scholar

A magazine I’ve fallen in love with recently is The American Scholar, currently edited by Robert Wilson.  The title comes from an essay/speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the magazine aspires to the Emersonian ideals of “independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to the affairs of the world as well as to books, history, and science.”  Published quarterly since 1932, (Summer, 2014 is on newsstands now), The American Scholar is the literary magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

What drew me in was the article in the Spring number written by James McWilliams entitled, “Loving Animals to Death.”  He takes us through the hypocrisies and hysterics in the Food Movement, “a loosely organized but powerful coalition of progressive interests” that aims “to localize, downsize, and decentralize the North American food system in order to usher consumers ‘beyond the barcode’ and into a world of wholesome whole food.”  Specifically, what does “free range,” “organic,” or “humanely killed” mean?  McWilliams writes, “It seems not only reasonable but essential to ask:  How can a movement claim to care so deeply about farm animals that it wants to restructure all of animal agriculture to ensure their happiness but, at the same time, turn those same animals into an $11 appetizer plate of fried pig head?  What moral principle could possible accommodate such a whiplash-inducing shift in practice?”  The bottom line:  is there any humane way to kill and eat animals?  McWilliams would say no, and those who argue otherwise are guilty of hypocrisy.  The entire issue is fraught with complications, and McWilliams argues that “what the Food Movement should envision—is a radical shift in agricultural practice initiated by a radical shift in what consumers agree not to eat.  This transition would primarily favor far more diversified systems of production focused on growing plants for people to consume (right now, 75 percent of the world’s calories in food production comes from corn, rice, wheat, and soy, and the bulk of all corn and soy goes to livestock).”

A second article in the same issue, “What Killed My Sister?” by Priscilla Long focuses on the disturbing questions about mental illness in our society, most specifically schizophrenia.  In her search for the reasons for her sister’s death, Long questions the causes of the disease, its treatments, and its growing impact on Americans who live with it, deal with family members who suffer from it, or who encounter people on the street who walk around each day without treatment to ameliorate their symptoms.  It is a fascinating article that explains the nuances of the illness and sheds light on some of the stories we have seen in the news in the last few years, many of them tragic, regarding those who are touched by the disease.  Long’s personal story and the case of her sister Susanne add a poignant and deeply-felt intensity to the need for better understanding and treatment of this horrific disease.  In the end, she offers a ray of hope:  “Recovery from schizophrenia is possible,” she writes.  “Living a meaningful life with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is possible.  This is the message I wish to leave.  I only wish Susanne could have heard it.”

An essay on loneliness by Edward Hoagland, a reflection on old age and dying by Doris Grumbach, and fiction by Jerome Charyn round out the issue.  There are book reviews, poetry, and an end feature called Back Talk which explores word meanings and origins in the form of a contest.  The Spring issue’s focus was on euphemisms.  Readers were asked to suggest some euphemisms for “eating heart-hostile food,” “living with one’s parents after college,” “putting on weight in middle age,” and “gossiping.”

An added bonus with subscription is full access to the magazine’s website.  This includes the archives plus The Daily Scholar and several blogs.  A beautiful piece by Simon Winchester entitled “Keep Wonder Alive” was the highlight of my Thursday morning reading.  In the essay, Winchester cites the best advice he was given about writing from James Morris, writer and adventurer.  Morris tells Winchester “If you ever do become a will visit many places, encounter many strangers, experience countless things.  Through it all, however, keep true to one single mantra:  never, ever lose your sense of wonder.”  The words came at a time when Winchester was working as a geologist in a “lonely corner of East Africa,” feeling “by no means a success at [his] work, performing tasks quite evidently not [his] calling.”

In the archive I found a series of essays posted by my favorite literary essayist, Michael Dirda, entitled The Complete Browsings.  Although Dirda no longer writes the column, his work here is timeless, fun and insightful.  Dirda, of course, wrote and edited The Washington Post book coverage for many years.

What I like about the magazine is that the writers and editors inspire thinking and conversation among readers.  Questions don’t necessarily have clear answers, but the act of asking on the part of the writer makes the reader rethink his or her beliefs, such as in the piece about food.  I will use the articles about the food issues and schizophrenia in my writing in the sciences course in a few weeks, mainly because readers are not only informed about an issue, but are left to apply what they have learned to their lives.  At the end of the day, I want my students to embrace those Emersonian ideals.  Emerson was a man who demanded much of his readers, a collaboration even between writer and reader that would lead to epiphanies and with greater thought, to resolutions of timeless conflicts, internal and external.  The American Scholar continues the tradition, and for that reason, I highly recommend subscribing.